Why people cheat, according to the latest scientific research

This one's... interesting.

Why people cheat:
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This one's... interesting.

Everyone's still talking about that Matt Hancock scandal, which saw leaked footage of him and one of his aides, Gina Coladangelo, kissing in his Westminster office nearly break the Internet. But, question for the experts: is there a solid explanation for why people cheat?

You might think there's not a conclusive answer to that question but, interestingly, the experts we spoke to think differently.

If you've ever been cheated on, you'll know it's not nice. Regardless of whether you met on a dating site or IRL, have been together a short while or 50 years, it happens to the best of us, sadly. Celebrities including Sienna Miller and Taylor Swift have opened up when their own partners were unfaithful.

So why do people cheat? Why don't people just end their relationship if they're unhappy? (Or, you know, just invest in one of the best sex toys instead?) What drives people to opt for the deception? Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all answer - every affair is different, and so too will be the reason why - but there are some common crossovers.

Keep reading for an expert take on why people cheat, plus some tips on how to cope with being cheated on.

Why people cheat, according to the experts

1. There's been a rise in break-ups due to Covid

According to Gilly Da Silva, life coach and founder of Mending Hearts Retreats, the last year has only seen an increase in the number of people walking away from marriages or cheating on partners after too much time at home assessing their life choices.

"In some marriages it’s obvious to both partners that it’s failing but in others, especially when there’s cheating, one partner is completely in the dark making the shock more intense," she gos on.

So has there been a spike in cheating in the last year? In short, yes.

"There's been a significant spike in broken relationships and marriages during and post lockdown. Lockdown shone a light on relationship issues but while some marriages are obviously in trouble, in others one of the partners has no idea it’s coming," she explains.

Plus, scientists now recognise Broken Heart Syndrome as a real condition, similar to a heart attack, which means getting cheated on is officially recognised as seriously - physically - painful. "The study shows that it affects mostly post-menopausal women, and is brought on by emotional or physical stress, such as the loss of a loved one through bereavement, separation, or divorce," she explains.

2. Lack of relationship satisfaction can lead to people straying

Plenty of research has been conducted to find out the whys - some studies claim that you're more likely to be cheated on if you have a good sex life, or if you have one of these names.

But the most recent study published on the matter was in the journal of Sex & Marital Findings, and came out in December last year. It examined 495 people who had all admitted to cheating on a partner previously.

They all asked the simple question of why and, after thorough analysis, eight key reasons came to the fore.

These included:

  • Anger
  • Self-esteem
  • Lack of love
  • Low commitment
  • Need for variety
  • Neglect
  • Sexual desire
  • Situation or circumstance.

These influenced whether a person cheated, but also, how long they cheated for; whether they enjoyed it or not; plus whether they ended up becoming emotionally invested in the affair, too.

3. As can lack of love

Similarly, a 2017 study shed some similar light on the actual reasons that people may choose to cheat.

According to research published in The Journal of Sex Research, the number one reason for infidelity is 'lack of love'. This echoes the 2020 findings from The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.

The study surveyed 495 adults to find out why they cheat, and, according to their findings, it has a lot to do with the person. 70% of participants admitted that their eyes wandered as a result of feeling neglected in their relationship - that's sexually, emotionally, or both.

4. As can a desire to find your sexual assertiveness 

However, relationship expert Maria Ray thinks that why women cheat is slightly different to why men cheat. She reckons that female infidelity isn't necessarily motivated by long-term dissatisfaction with a partner; "Today, infidelity is more closely allied to female sexual assertiveness − a sense of ‘I’m taking this for me’", she explains.

Pinning it to a similar train-of-thought of acclaimed sexual psychologist Esther Perel, who researches our desire for self-actualisation, she says women sometimes stray because of dissatisfaction with who they have become, rather than unhappiness with their partner. ‘In truth, we are not looking for another person,’ Perel says. ‘We are looking for another self.’

It's important to note here that Ray has no scientific research to back up her theory, but a concept from an expert, instead. It's still interesting, huh.

What do you reckon - why do you think people cheat? If you yourself have been cheated on, remember: you are not alone. Our guide to how to cope if you've been cheated on may just help.

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.